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Dividing daylilies to revive a flower bed

Bob Dluzen
Special to The Detroit News

Daylilies are a very popular perennial. They’re easy to grow and will thrive under a wide variety of conditions.

Eventually, after they grow, mature and get older, the center of a clump will stop producing flowers and eventually die off. That leaves an unsightly dead area that gets taken over by weeds. It’s up to the gardener to fix that situation. If left alone long enough, the daylilies will continue to expand in a circle, leaving dead space behind without filling it back in.

The center of this daylily bed had died back and was replaced by weedy grass.

Digging up existing clumps of old plants, dividing them and replanting is a regular part of garden maintenance that will keep a flower bed looking fresh.

Daylilies are tough plants so they can be divided just about any time of the year, but late summer is one of the best times.

They have fleshy roots, and it is those roots that are separated from each other during division.

This is a typical size of a division in this project. Note the fleshy roots.

A garden digging fork is the best tool to use to dig up the old plants. The tines of the fork will slip past most root rhizomes as opposed to a shovel that will cut through them.

To divide a clump, first cut down the tops so only 6 or 8 inches of leaves remain. That will make it much easier to handle the divided plants later on. Keep in mind some daylily varieties have long, large roots; others have smaller roots.

Insert a garden fork or shovel all the way around the plant you’re working on to loosen it from the soil and  lift it from the soil. Use your garden fork or a pair of garden forks to separate the roots. If you don’t have a garden fork or if the roots are too tough for you to handle, use a shovel to cut the clump in half, then again into quarters or eights if you want.

If you want to fill in a larger space with more plants, divide the roots even further by teasing them apart by hand. You can divide them as small as a single fan of leaves as long as there are a set of roots attached.

I needed to fill in that area so I ended up with small divisions that had one, two or just a few fans of leaves per piece.

I like to replant the daylily divisions randomly rather than in rows to give a more natural, informal look.

The daylilies I worked on had very few single large clumps. Instead, after many years, they had spread into that circle of growth I talked about earlier. Most of the time it’s best to divide them before they reach that stage when they are still growing in individual clumps.

Once all of the plants were dug up from the bed, I took  the opportunity to clear the soil of grassy weed roots such as quack grass.

Pieces of quackgrass root rhizomes can sprout at each node allowing them to quickly take over an area if left unchecked. Their leaves closely resemble young daylily tops.

I also added a few inches worth of homemade compost and worked it into the existing soil. Daylilies are not very particular about what kind of soil to grow in so the compost may have been overkill. But the resulting fluffy soil made it easier and a lot more enjoyable to plant in.

The pieces were planted randomly anywhere from 6 to 12 inches apart with the crown of the divided piece about an inch deep. I thoroughly watered them in and kept the soil evenly moist.

New leaves sprouted from the roots fairly quickly with the first ones poking up after a week or so.

As to be expected, weed seeds and stray pieces of quackgrass rhizomes also sprouted. Removing weeds while they are still small seedlings will help get the newly planted daylilies off to a good start and keep the bed looking tidy as the plants grow.

The same daylily bed a couple of weeks later. The divisions are growing and will soon fill in the area.

Using a pre-emergent herbicide will keep annual weed seeds from sprouting but will have no effect on perennial weeds like that quackgrass. Once the daylilies become established, they will shade out most of the seedlings, keeping weeding to a minimum.